TORONTO — Just over a minute into Game 2 against the Orlando Magic, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry sniffed out a mismatch against center Nikola Vucevic and went to work.
Lowry, who had been held scoreless in Game 1, collected the dribble-handoff from teammate Marc Gasol and drove into the body of the Magic’s big man, hurling the ball over his shoulder at the rim as he tumbled toward the baseline.
As Lowry ambled to the line, the Toronto crowd cheered in anticipation of his first point of the series. After his first free-throw attempt missed, the applause reached a crescendo, climaxing as the second shot fell through the net. The moment was a portrait of Raptor fanhood — a combination of encouragement for a player who has built an All-Star career over seven seasons in Toronto, with a pinch of salt mined from years of postseason anxiety.
Kyle Lowry: Game 1 vs. Game 2
|Game 1||Game 2|
|* most in a playoff game since May 23, 2016|
Over the next 47 minutes, Lowry would tack on another 21 points, while Kawhi Leonard led all scorers with 37, as the Raptors roared back with a dominant 111-82 victory to square the first-round series at 1-1.
“That is [Lowry] at his finest,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “Tonight he was charging up the floor and pushing the ball, passing, shooting, driving, kicking, made steals, hands on everything, rebounded. He was doing it all.”
Lowry wasn’t alone. On Tuesday, the Raptors embodied the best version of themselves — a versatile, veteran-savvy team featuring five elite defenders who can also slice you up offensively in the half court.
In the intervening days between Games 1 and 2, the Raptors players and staff emphasized the need to decongest a long Orlando defense that afforded them no half-court elbow room in Saturday’s loss. On Tuesday night, the Raptors executed that design to perfection with snappy ball reversals and relentless penetration resulting in either close-range shots or kickouts to open shooters.
“You get to kind of marinate in Game 1 for a couple of days,” Gasol said. “[Then] you come out with a lot of energy and discipline and execute the game plan like we did.”
Leonard hummed along at maximum efficiency — 15-for-22 from the field (4-for-8 from beyond the arc), four rebounds, four assists, a couple of steals and only a single turnover. He appeared spry, inexhaustible and entirely comfortable in the confines of a Toronto offense that flowed effortlessly.
Though Leonard reveals virtually no emotion in his post-game remarks, his sparse comments offer insights into how he assembles the sort of performance that paced the Raptors on Tuesday night. Asked how he was able to exploit Orlando forward Aaron Gordon, Leonard replied that the effort wasn’t a mastery of a specific defender so much as a result of good judgment.
“Just playing within the offence,” Leonard said. “Just reading angles, reading the backside of the defense. Just trying to get into the paint. They’re a good defensive team. They help each other. Really, just trying to play team basketball, get to my spots, see if I draw two. If I do — just pass it.”
In a series of sentence fragments with little expression, Leonard verbally sketched the tactical decision-tree that empowered him — and the Raptors — to maintain control of a game in which they never trailed.
Gasol is another case study in how the Raptors can dice up opponents this spring through smarts and precision. The Raptors veteran center, acquired mid-season from the Memphis Grizzlies, posted a 3-for-5 shooting line in 22 minutes — every make was from deep — but that belied his overall net effect. As an example, Gasol orchestrated two gorgeous possessions from the top of the floor: the first when he darted a bounce pass to Lowry on a baseline basket cut for an easy layup in the second quarter, the next a fluttering lob to Leonard for an alley-oop and-1 just after intermission. Both were emotional touchstones on Tuesday night.
With arrival of Leonard and Gasol, the maturation of Pascal Siakam (19 points and 10 rebounds on Tuesday), the perpetual motion of Danny Green, the Raptors have, in a few short seasons, evolved from an iso-heavy outfit to one that can beat teams with the pass.
On the other end of the floor, Gasol effectively took Vucevic out of the game, leaving the Magic’s offense groping in the half court against a more physical Raptors defense.
“I got the ball in some decent spots in the post a few times and they double-teamed me early,” Vucevic said. “It makes it hard for me to create anything and they do a good job taking away a lot of my strengths. I’ve just gotta figure it out, find a way to be more aggressive and more efficient offensively.”
The Raptors held Orlando to an anemic effective field goal percentage of 42.6, and surrendered only 21 attempts at the rim all night. In Game 1, the Raptors produced a decent performance against the Magic’s pick-and-roll attack (yielding 1.02 points per direct pick), but in Game 2, the Raptors’ schemes stifled D.J. Augustin and the rest of the Orlando ball handlers.
The Magic generated only 0.78 points per direct pick, with Augustin following a 25-point outing in Game 1 with only nine points on one field goal made in Game 2.
“It was just more being locked in on every coverage, everything we wanted to do, just being on the same page and communication,” Lowry said. “We made sure we helped each other and made sure that if someone went to help, that someone helped the helper, and helped the helper’s helper.”
Few teams in the 2019 NBA playoff field can activate that chain reaction like the Raptors can. They’re loaded with savvy veterans that understand how to manufacture both stops and shots, how to counter length, as they did in Game 2, and how to shrink the floor against an opponent with offensive limitations.
The Raptors have found their desired intensity, if one game late. All that’s required now is its maintenance.